Twelve Steps for Parents: How to Make Amends with Children and Family

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If we want to be forgiven, we have to be patient, because it may not come today, tomorrow or the next day.

In early recovery, parents might feel pressured to make up for lost time and experiences. We've had a spiritual awakening, and we suddenly want to fit as much as possible into each day—and we want to quickly repair all the harm we caused during active addiction.

Eventually we make a list of all the persons we harmed while under the influence of drinking or drug use—the process of taking personal inventory, admitting the exact nature of our wrongdoing and making amends to those we've harmed is critical to the Twelve Steps. And when it comes to our family and children, we might be particularly interested in speeding that process along. But, if anything, we need to slow it down.

After we take a fearless moral inventory of ourselves, we will without a doubt want to make amends to our kids for the hurt we caused with our drug or alcohol abuse*—but it may not play out as we expect. The amends our children need depend on where they are in their lives, not necessarily where we are in ours. We should meet our children where they are; the conversation will play out differently based on age.

How Do You Make Amends to Young Kids?

Let's talk about small children. In many cases, making direct amends to them is simply not possible. We may want to get down on our knees, look them in the eyes and give them a speech about the meaning of addiction, making conscious contact with a Higher Power and practicing the Twelve Steps, but those details will likely just confuse them.

We should go easy on the words and strong on the actions. After all, years of drug or alcohol abuse will not be undone with an apology or a few simple words. We need to prove to our children that we are seriously addressing our addiction, not just offering cheap words.

Children don't need to hear about the disease of alcoholism or the Twelve Steps. They just want their parent back. So we can skip the long-winded speeches and just be mom or dad. In Twelve Step terminology, another word for "amend" is "fix." Not the fix we might have chased back in the day, but a fix to a broken relationship. We don't need to delve into the past and apologize for every birthday party we missed, every fight we picked or the years we were absent— either physically or emotionally. Let's just show up and be their parent today.

We can also make a living amends by changing the behaviors that hurt or harmed them, and we can let go of the all-consuming guilt that would only tempt us to use again.

And as always, it's important to make amends and verbalize our intention to never hurt our children again. But it's also important to follow their lead and choose whichever path allows our children to feel happy and safe.

How Do You Make an Amends to Older Kids?

Older children will more clearly understand our explanations of addiction and how that affected us, but that doesn't mean we should spend much time on the subject.

If we want to make direct amends with older children, we ought to keep it short and sweet. We can tell our kids that we had a problem, we're working to get healthier and that going forward we'll be there for them. We don't have to go into a long apology. Older children have longer and stronger memories than their younger siblings, so the key with them is to be patient. Just because we're excited to be sober and in recovery doesn't mean the children are overjoyed to talk about it. They may remember some hurtful things we did—things we said or did during a blackout that we can't even recall. Just remember: when we make amends to older kids, it may take months or even years before they're willing to forgive and trust us again.

It's not our job to quicken their process of accepting us any more than it was their job to help us get sober. Forgiveness may not come on our timetable, but what gives us the right to set the timetable? It's all too easy for us addicts to shift the blame to people who are blameless, as in, "I got sober, so why won't she talk to me?" Other people don't carry any responsibility or obligation to our recovery. Maybe they got sick of watching the addiction destroy us and our family. Maybe they are guarding their heart because they are afraid we might relapse or say something hurtful.

At this point, the why doesn't matter. What matters is that we give the people we hurt the time to adequately heal so they can trust us again. For that to happen, our words and actions have to be consistent.

Moving from Amends to Forgiveness

If we want to be forgiven, we have to be patient, because it may not come today, tomorrow or the next day. We likely promised to sober up in the past, only to revert to alcohol abuse or another drug of choice. Children see it all for what it is, not what we've promised.

When we make amends, we may not even know the extent of how we hurt them, but our kids do. Allow them to have the dignity of their own emotions.** Some sponsors have compared early recovery to a caterpillar entering a chrysalis; eventually we should emerge as a butterfly. If someone reaches into the chrysalis to hurry the butterfly along, they only harm its chances in the long run.

We may be in recovery, but our family members may not be able to trust that it's permanent or sincere. It took time for us to emerge from our chrysalis fully committed to recovery, and the people around us are entitled to go through the process without being rushed. Like everything in parenting, patience is required. All we can do is get sober, be the best person we can be and, above all, be patient.

Amends Are Not Apologies—They're Expressions of Accountability

Before and after making amends, it's important to remember why we're doing it in the first place. We're not making an apology. We're taking accountability for our actions during active addiction, and we're marking for ourselves a new chapter where those behaviors are no longer acceptable. We're telling the world, "Addiction made me behave a certain way. I don't like it, and it doesn't reflect the person I want to be in recovery."

We hurt our loved ones during active addiction. We understand that fact and don't choose to run from it, and we understand that words cannot make those painful memories disappear. We can only become who we intend to be, and acknowledge to others that those addictive behaviors have no place in our lives from here on out.

Then we make space for other people to hurt and heal—not just now, but into the foreseeable future. If we are honest and sincere about our amends, then we will not repeat those mistakes, and we will not rush people to forgiveness. We will honor the emotional consequences that stem from our behaviors, and seek to become healthier so as not to repeat them.

A Final Note about Amends

Early recovery can be incredibly lonely and frustrating, and we may feel angry or rejected when a person doesn't seem to recognize the growth we're committed to making. We may want our children and families to love, accept and forgive us, but we shouldn't confuse our wants with our needs. The process of making amends is not about us fixing everything—that comes in time and from going to meetings, attending to our recovery and cultivating a relationship to a Higher Power.

The only thing we can show people today is our love, commitment and patience. In time, they will be returned.

* Editor's note: We prefer to use language that destigmatizes the disease of addiction. We don't ordinarily use terms like alcohol abuse, drug abuse or substance abuse because they imply that people with substance or alcohol use disorders are "abusers," rather than people with a terrible disease. However, we have decided to keep the terms substance abuse, drug abuse and alcohol abuse in this article to reach more people who are using those terms to search for help with addiction.

**Alateen is a wonderful resource for families. Also, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation has an incredible Children's Program that helps kids understand addiction.

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